Italy: What’s the meaning of Francesco Gabbani’s song “Occidentali’s Karma”?

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He won Festival di Sanremo 2017 with his catchy song and broke the internet from the hype surrounding his dancing gorilla. But there’s much more to Francesco Gabbani’s song “Occidentali’s Karma” (“Westerners’ Karma”) than the ape. Look beneath the colour and fun, and you’ll see a lot is going on.

The charming 34-year-old songwriter conquered the televote thanks to a super fresh and catchy song and simple and likeable choreography. It even grabbed the attention of press outside Italy — UK media Metro and Digital Spy have also been swept up in “Ape-Mania”.

But the moves and the sex appeal are not the only qualities that make “Occidentali’s Karma” so memorable. The lyrics — that deviate from the usual sanremese themes of pathos, love and tears — cleverly reference both science and philosophy.

In the first two lines of the song we immediately meet William Shakespeare and Erich Fromm. The iconic “To be, or not to be” — the opening phrase of a soliloquy spoken by Prince Hamlet in the so-called “nunnery scene” of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet — merges with Fromm’s book To Have or to Be, published in 1976.

In his work, the German psychoanalyst mentions modern society’s rush to materialism and how people prefer “having” to “being”. Gabbani uses the same concept as a major theme of “Occidentali’s Karma”.

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When he sings of the internet phenomenon, Francesco cites Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the international mutual aid fellowship, the purpose of which is to help alcoholics “stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety”. But he hints that those having to be helped nowadays are actually selfie addicts. You’ve felt the urge, haven’t you?

And what about “panta rhei” (“everything flows”)? The motto — spoken by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus — reminds us that in life “everything changes and nothing remains still, you cannot step twice into the same stream” because “ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers.”

The chorus takes us into a mystical dimension, full of references to Buddhism. “Nirvana” has nothing to do with the grunge band who slayed the charts in the ’90s. As many of you will already know, it represents the highest summit to aspire to after losing all contact with passions and mortal desires.

“Mantra” is instead a sacred utterance that must be repeated many times during meditation and that can help the believer to regain stability and lost mental strength. At the same time “karma” is the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (the cause) influence the future of that individual (the effect).

“Namaste” is a respectful form of greeting in Hindu custom, usually spoken with a slight bow and hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards, thumbs close to the chest.

The “single line” and the “recreation time” refer to yoga lessons. It’s Francesco himself who describes the meaning of that part — and how hypocritical we can be: “We do yoga to find a balance between body and mind” — he says — “But if we don’t wear fashionable clothes, then we do not go to yoga classes!”

The key part of the song is undoubtedly “the naked ape is dancing”, the answer to the dancing gorilla that’s breaking the internet.

The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal is a 1967 book by British zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris, who makes use of the term to refer to the human species, considered the most evolved version of monkeys, in this case devoid of the heavy coat of hair.

Last but not least, Karl Marx. The German-born socialist appears with his famous quote “Religion is the opiate of the masses”. The lines written by Gabbani are also related to the use of social networks — the drug of our days.

Fabio Ilacqua, the man who wrote “Occidentali’s Karma” together with Francesco, better explains the overall meaning of Italy’s entry.

“It describes the situation of Westerners, their models and their way of seeking refuge in the Oriental rituals for comfort. It’s a pretext to observe how are we as modern humans. Westerners are turning to oriental cultures like tourists who go into a holiday village. Oriental cultures are seen as an escape from the stress, but they were not born for this. It’s the trivialisation of something profound”.

Putting a dancing ape on stage next to the singer is not a random idea: “Behind the ape there’s the modern human being, one of the 193 species of apes described by Desmond Morris, the only one without hair. We are clothed men but inside we still have lots of characteristics deriving from cavemen”.

“Occidentali’s Karma” lyrics – Francesco Gabbani (Italy, Eurovision 2017)

“Occidentali’s Karma”

Essere o dover essere
Il dubbio amletico
Contemporaneo come l’uomo del neolitico
Nella tua gabbia 2×3 mettiti comodo
Intellettuali nei caffè
Internettologi
Soci onorari al gruppo dei selfisti anonimi
L’intelligenza è démodé
Risposte facili
Dilemmi inutili

AAA cercasi storie dal gran finale,
Sperasi
Comunque vada, panta rei
And “Singing in the rain”

Lezioni di Nirvana
C’è il Buddha in fila indiana
Per tutti un’ora d’aria, di gloria (ale!)
La folla grida un mantra
L’evoluzione inciampa
La scimmia nuda balla
Occidentali’s karma
Occidentali’s karma
La scimmia nuda balla
Occidentali’s karma

Piovono gocce di Chanel
Su corpi asettici
Mettiti in salvo dall’odore dei tuoi simili
Tutti tuttologi col web
Coca dei popoli
Oppio dei poveri

AAA cercasi umanità virtuale
Sex appeal
Comunque vada, panta rei
And “Singing in the rain”

Lezioni di Nirvana
C’è il Buddha in fila indiana
Per tutti un’ora d’aria, di gloria (ale!)
La folla grida un mantra
L’evoluzione inciampa
La scimmia nuda balla
Occidentali’s karma
Occidentali’s karma
La scimmia nuda balla
Occidentali’s karma

Quando la vita si distrae
Cadono gli uomini
Occidentali’s karma
Occidentali’s karma
La scimmia si rialza
Namaste, ale!

Lezioni di Nirvana
C’è il Buddha in fila indiana
Per tutti un’ora d’aria, di gloria (ale!)
La folla grida un mantra
L’evoluzione inciampa
La scimmia nuda balla
Occidentali’s karma
Occidentali’s karma
La scimmia nuda balla
Occidentali’s karma
Om

English translation

To be or to have to be
Hamlet’s doubt
As current as the Neolithic man
Get comfy in your 2 x 3 cage
Intellectuals in cafés
Internet experts
Honorary members of the selfie-addicted anonymous
Cleverness is out of fashion
Easy answers
Pointless dilemmas

AAA grand endings wanted
Hoped for,
Whatever happens, panta rhei
And “Singing in the Rain”.

Nirvana lessons
There’s Buddha in single line
Recreation time for everyone, a moment of glory (ale!)
The crowd is shouting a mantra
Evolution stumbles
The naked ape is dancing
Westerners’ karma
Westerners’ karma
The naked ape is dancing
Westerners’ karma

Drops of Chanel are pouring
On aseptic bodies
Save yourself from the smell of your own kind
All know-all with the web
Cocaine of the masses
Opiate of the poor

AAA virtual humanity wanted
Sex appeal
Whatever happens, panta rhei
And “Singing in The Rain”

Nirvana lessons
There’s Buddha in single line
Recreation time for everyone, a moment of glory (ale!)
The crowd is shouting a mantra
Evolution stumbles
The naked ape is dancing
Westerners’ karma
Westerners’ karma
The naked ape is dancing
Westerners’ karma

When life is distracted
Men drop
Westerners’ karma
Westerners’ karma
The ape gets back on its feet
Namaste, go!

Nirvana lessons
There’s Buddha in single line,
recreation time for everyone, a moment of glory (ale!)
The crowd is shouting a mantra
Evolution stumbles
The naked ape is dancing
Westerners’ karma
Westerners’ karma
The naked ape is dancing
Westerners’ karma
Om

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you think about the lyrics to “Occidentali’s Karma”? Share your thoughts below!

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